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  • Print publication year: 2004
  • Online publication date: June 2012

25 - Virtue and Emotional Demeanor


The gestures which we sometimes call empty are perhaps in fact the fullest things of all.

(Erving Goffman, 1967)


I argue in this chapter that emotional demeanor (especially in facial expression) is often a crucial way we show moral regard for others. I explore the extent to which such expression is subject to control and consider the problem of insincerity in posing facial expressions. For a robust discussion of these issues, I turn to Seneca's De Beneficiis (On Doing Kindnesses). Seneca's concerns in this work overlap in significant ways with those of Erving Goffman in his classic account of deference rituals.


When we think about moral character we sometimes focus on faces and bodies. In particular, we think about emotional attitude and how it is conveyed in physical and facial comportment. So we talk about “a look of concern,” “a compassionate embrace,” “a reassuring smile,” “an empathetic tone of voice.” What is salient is emotional demeanor, or, to adapt a Kantian phrase, the “emotional aesthetic” of virtue (Kant, 1964, 405).

I emphasize “adapt,” for Kant is a controversial figure to appeal to in matters of the emotions. On an orthodox reading, his notion of an emotional “aesthetic” of virtue is meant to keep emotion at arm's length from morality, construed more narrowly in terms of willed action.

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